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CDC - Cancer Cluster archived website note

Historical Document

This document is provided by the National Center for Environmental Health ONLY as an historical reference for the public health community. It is no longer being maintained and the data it contains may no longer be current and/or accurate.

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What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust.

Several forms of arsenic exist in the environment. Inorganic arsenic compounds occur naturally in soil and in many kinds of rock. Inorganic arsenic compounds are used to preserve wood and in the past were used as an insecticide or weed killer.

Arsenic that gets into animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds. These compounds are much less toxic than inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic can build up in fish and shellfish, but the arsenic in fish is mostly in the organic form, which is less harmful. Organic arsenic compounds are still used as pesticides, primarily on cotton plants.

How can people be exposed to arsenic?

  • Eating food, drinking water, or breathing air containing arsenic
  • Breathing contaminated workplace air
  • Breathing sawdust or burning smoke from wood treated with arsenic
  • Absorbing arsenic through the skin from soil or water that contains arsenic
  • Living near hazardous waste sites containing arsenic
  • Living in areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock. This can lead to unusually high levels of arsenic in soil and water

How can arsenic enter and leave my body?

  • If you swallow arsenic in water, soil, or food, most of the arsenic will quickly enter your body. The amount that enters your body will depend on how much you swallow and the kind of arsenic that you swallow.
  • If you breathe air that contains arsenic dusts, many of the dust particles will settle onto the lining of the lungs. Most of the arsenic in these particles then gets into the body from the lungs.
  • If you get arsenic-contaminated soil or water on your skin, only a small amount will go through your skin into your body, so this is usually not of concern.
  • If you are exposed to inorganic arsenic, your liver changes some of it to a less harmful organic form.
  • Both inorganic and organic forms of arsenic leave your body in your urine. Most of the arsenic will be gone within several days, but some will remain in your body for several months or even longer.

Can exposure to arsenic make people sick?

Yes. Ingesting high levels of inorganic arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm, seizures, and a sensation of "pins and needles" in hands and feet (neuropathy).

Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritate your lungs.

Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long period of time can cause stomach problems, headaches, anemia, neuropathy, and skin lesions: lightening or darkening of the skin; and small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles, or torso.

Can arsenic cause any types of cancer?

Arsenic can cause cancer in people. Breathing inorganic arsenic increases your risk for lung cancer, and eating or drinking inorganic arsenic increases your risk for skin cancer and tumors of the bladder, kidney, liver, and lung.

Can arsenic cause leukemia?

Arsenic exposure has not been linked to leukemia in adults or children.

Can arsenic cause reproductive problems?

We do not know yet because not enough studies have been done in humans or lab animals on whether arsenic affects the reproductive system. In addition, few studies have been performed in animals; thus, the reproductive toxicity of arsenic cannot be evaluated.

Can arsenic cause developmental effects?

Yes, several studies have linked exposure to inorganic arsenic with a higher risk for birth defects, low birth weight, or spontaneous abortion. However, in all these studies, the people were exposed to other chemicals and had other risks that might have caused these problems. Therefore, the studies only suggest that arsenic caused the developmental problems.

What were the results of arsenic testing in urine in Churchill County?

Thirty-four percent of the Churchill County population tested for arsenic in their urine had a level above our reference value of 50 μg/L.

Normal urine levels of arsenic are less than 50 μg/L. A level between 50 and 200 μg/L should be monitored by your physician but does not necessarily represent a health risk. A level over 200 μg/L is considered abnormal and may require treatment if symptoms of arsenic poisoning are present. The best test to confirm too much arsenic exposure is a 24-hour urine collection and analysis after 3 days of a seafood-free diet.

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